Marek’s Take: Same battle, different ‘G’

5G (Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns)
Nearly all the operators are guilty of launching confusing marketing programs at some point in their past that include mislabeled technologies. (Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns)
Marek's take

Hello again Fierce readers, it has been awhile. After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus from Fierce to work for a startup, I’m currently taking some time off to travel the world and see some sights other than trade show convention halls. However, I’ll be checking in every now and then to provide you with my latest insights and observations on the telecom world.

I’ve been writing about the wireless industry for nearly three decades and during that time I’ve seen a lot of smart marketing moves by wireless operators. From AT&T’s introduction of the Digital One Rate plan (which eliminated confusing roaming fees and long-distance charges) to T-Mobile’s Uncarrier initiatives that turned the tables on subsidized phones and early termination fees.

So why can’t some of these brilliant marketers come up with a better way to sell 5G?

I’m disheartened by the latest 5G marketing wars that have erupted. There seems to be this tendency for operators—in their rush to be the first with a new technology—to put labels on technologies that aren’t necessarily accurate (or at least don’t meet the criteria established by the standards bodies).

AT&T started the 5G battle by changing the “LTE” indicator its Android and Apple smartphones to “5Ge” in areas where the company now offers LTE advanced. In markets where AT&T has actually launched mobile 5G service, the devices will have a 5G+ label.

This move was met with outrage from AT&T’s competitors. Verizon’s PR team mockingly referred to AT&T’s 5Ge terminology as “5G eventually” on Twitter.

Sprint took the strongest action by filing a lawsuit in New York’s Southern District claiming that AT&T “has sought to gain an unfair advantage in the race to 5G by embarking on a nationwide advertising campaign to deceive consumers into believing that its’ existing 4G LTE Advanced network is now a 5G network.”

And at a recent Silicon Flatirons conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I asked Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s CTO what he thought about the move. Not surprisingly, Ray was adamant that AT&T’s marketing message was a disservice to consumers. “5Ge is confusing and it’s detrimental to the rollout of true 5G,” Ray said.

Everyone’s Guilty

But outrage aside, nearly all the operators are guilty of launching confusing marketing programs at some point in their past that include mislabeled technologies. When Sprint launched WiMAX back in 2008 the operator referred to it as a 4G technology even though the ITU classified WiMAX as a 3G technology. And back in 2010 T-Mobile was guilty of promoting its HSPA+ network as delivering 4G speeds. That move sparked the ire of AT&T because AT&T was also deploying HSPA+ throughout its network but wasn’t calling it 4G—at least not until T-Mobile started that trend. T-Mobile justified its move after the ITU softened its definition of 4G to include HSPA+.

In the 4G era (which was just nine years ago) all the operators complained about the confusing 4G marketing messages and claimed it would make consumers feel misled and ultimately hurt the industry.

So why is the industry repeating itself with 5G? Is it lazy marketing? Or does this type of marketing warfare work? Apparently, it works—at least initially.

In its claim, Sprint cites a survey that says that 43% of people think an AT&T phone labelled with 5Ge is capable of running on a 5G network and 54% mistakenly think that 5Ge networks are the same or better than a 5G network, even though 5G doesn’t exist yet.

AT&T is unapologetic. In a statement about the lawsuit, AT&T said its customers love what it’s doing. “We understand why our competitors don't like what we are doing, but our customers love it.”

Some industry watchers say AT&T is justified in its claims because LTE-Advanced is recognized by the ITU as part of the foundation for 5G. Others say that none of this really matters anyway because 5G is basically just a marketing designation now. “No one has control of the term so anyone can call anything 5G,” said Dan Warren, head of 5G Research at Samsung R&D Institute and the former director of technology at the GSMA. 

Regardless of whether AT&T is justified in its move or not, isn’t it time to come up with a better way to distinguish network superiority from the competition without just repeating what was done nine years ago in the 4G era?  — Sue

Sue Marek has been reporting on the telecom and tech industries for more than 25 years. Most recently, she was editor in chief at SDxCentral, where she oversaw all of that site’s editorial content. Prior to that she was editor in chief of FierceMarkets' Telecom Group, where she managed a team of editors and was responsible for the content for several of the company’s websites, newsletters and live events. Sue is a frequent speaker at industry events and has moderated panels for the Consumer Electronics Show, the Competitive Carriers’ Show, The Wireless Infrastructure Show, 5G North America, DC 5G, Interop, and more. Follow @SueMarek on Twitter and find her on LinkedIn.